I read a very thought-provoking article the other day from Early Retirement Dude: I don’t think we owe college to our kids. Does that make me a bad father?.
(Hat tip to Justin of Root of Good for sharing it on Twitter.)
I mostly agree with the title (more on this later), so I jumped into the article. You can click the link above and open it in a new window, because I’m probably going to be quoting some stuff.
It starts off powerfully and I think almost anyone would agree:
It’s not that you owe your kid a fashionable coat… it’s that you owe her a warm one… Anything beyond that’s a choice, not an obligation.
This is a cool illustration of needs vs. wants. This is an interesting discussion when put into the context of college. I usually think of this in terms of: My children may want to go to a small expensive liberal arts college, but their college needs may be met by our current state school (University of Rhode Island currently.)
The idea college isn’t a need is today’s world is something I hadn’t considered. I feel like a college degree nowadays was like a high school diploma of the generation before me. It’s hard to really say what a need is when it comes to education, but I think it’s best to have all the options open. Not having a college degree closes a lot of doors.
A few sentences later this hit me hard:
You don’t owe your kid college… you owe her a good start in life. Assuming the two are the same thing might be more harmful than helpful to both of you.
Doh! I had considered the two the same. My next thought is that this thought is going to be hurting my children. Fortunately they are 5 and 6, so I’ve got about a decade to think about this and solve the problem. (Of course, it will be here in a blink of an eye like the first 5 years.)
I don’t see where this harm would come from in most cases as long as people make reasonable choices.
Nonetheless, I’m excited to read the rest of the article, because Early Retirement Dude is going to give his ideas on what a “good start” is. I feel like my view is very basic, so I’m looking forward to seeing a new viewpoint.
We move on to the next section:
“A successful career isn’t the same as a successful life… We’ve all heard about the guy who’s miserable in a high-paying job.”
I think a successful career should be part a successful life. Who wants to feel unsuccessful roughly half of his/her waking life? That doesn’t necessarily mean that success is determined by a high-paying career. It could mean that you found fulfilling work. And finding that fulfilling work is probably easier when you have the option to do things that you want to do… and maybe change your mind as you go along.
I believe that a college degree helps with that.
It’s only been one generation since college became perceived as the gateway to success.
What’s been diminished, then, is the idea that the gateway to a ‘better life’ is ability and not pedigree. When hiring a candidate for a sales position, would you rather find a recent college grad with a degree in sales, or a candidate with a ten-year track record but no college on his resume?
This section changed my view of where the article was going. I just don’t buy these kinds of arguments. For example, it’s only been one generation since we felt the need to have internet access. A lot can happen in a generation with how fast news, information, and people can travel now. What happened in a previous generation might not relevant in the next one.
I think society has changed and we have to adapt to it. While society may need to rethink the value of a degree vs. experience, we can’t gamble our loved one’s future on society doing so. It seems that the vast majority of people are getting degrees and that sales position is going to have someone with the same or more experience AND the degree.
Sending your kids to college requires them to submit themselves to unreasonable strictures imposed on them by the university system.
I’m not sure that all colleges have the unreasonable strictures imposed on them. Some are pretty liberal. However, I’d say that every public high school and a lot of careers have these as well. It sounds a little unfair to single out college for this.
Not all kids can handle college
This is true. However, if this is the case then the question of whether you owe college to the child is trivial. Do you owe a two year old a family heirloom hunting knife? No.
If you’re carrying credit card debt or any other debt above student loan rates, paying tuition is a terrible economic inefficiency.
This is very true as well. In this case, I’d say that if you can’t afford to pay for college, you don’t owe it. I hope there aren’t too many people running up credit card debt to pay for their kid’s tuition.
Many of us will have to balance taking care of our kids against taking care of our parents.
This is a good point, but again covered by if you can’t afford to pay for college, you don’t owe it.
To wit: if you pay for your kid’s college you can forget about ever retiring yourself.
It is possible to pay for your children’s college and retire yourself. People have done it. Seriously.
It’s usually well-settled personal finance that you pay for your retirement first. As the saying goes, “You can’t get loans for retirement.” (Well maybe a reverse mortgage.)
In the end, all these last three financial situations are particular on your personal situation. Early Retirement Dude supports his points with a lot of good data about the average person in the situation. The good thing is the average may not relevant in your situation. Early Retirement Dude himself points out that he doesn’t have to take financial care of his parents.
The good thing is that you aren’t a statistic. Also, chances are, that if you are reading this, you are probably doing better financially than most.
So… College: What We Owe Each Other
With the background information covered, we can move forward.
The first thing I learned is that the question of whether a parent owes college is only relevant if:
- College is the right option for your child
- College can be afforded
The first one requires a subjective personal assessment of your situation. I can’t help you with that.
The second one is a complex personal finance question. It could be a good one to work on with your financial planner. That planner may be able to suggest a certain range of money you could afford for college. That could help pin down the college options that are a good fit.
If college is the right option and it can be afforded, I think we finally get to the philosophical question:
What do you as a parent owe your child when it comes to college?
When I was going to college, our family fortunately dodged this discussion by getting a full scholarship to an excellent school. I suspect there would have been an option of getting some help from my mother (my father had died a few years before), if I went to a public school. It could have been more, perhaps even 100% of a private school, but I want to say that this was a minimum expectation from me.
I’ve put a lot of thought about this question when it comes to our own kids, ages 5 and 6. However, my wife’s GI Bill may cover half of their college expenses if they choose to go to an in-state public college. For other colleges, it is a set amount of money per year. It’s a tremendous benefit. In a lot of ways, it could “take us off the hook” for what we owe our children.
That’s not to say that we haven’t saved some money in 529 plans. It’s just not going to be very much in comparison to what the financial planners tell you to save. If we don’t add to it, maybe it will pay for one more year for one child. That would cover 5 of the 8 years of school between the two children. We may also be able to save more, but we are investing it now in private school. (We qualify for a great scholarship.)
Hopefully there’s an educational snowball. My (completely based on nothing scientific) feeling is that if you get children started well early on, it will pay dividends down the line.
So what about the other three years? That’s where they are going to have to pick up the slack. Hopefully they’ll get scholarships. Perhaps they’ll get loans. Perhaps they’ll work. That’s what they owe us when it comes to college… having some skin in the game and doing the best they can.
In any case, I think there’s an expectation to have a clear, financial conversation about college. I’m not sure when those kind of conversations start, but I think I’ll drop dad hints for quite a bit, so they’ll have expectation.
Again, these are very early thoughts. My thoughts are likely to evolve over the next 10 years as we approach blastoff.
What are your thoughts about what we owe to each other when it comes to college expenses? Let me know in the comments.
P.S. The title “What We Owe to Each Other” is taken from The Good Place, which was taken from the real book.